Times Argus article: "Vt. health reform tops Jan. agenda"


Vt. health reform tops Jan. agenda

By DANIEL BARLOW Vermont Press Bureau - Published: December 14, 2009

MONTPELIER – Vermont lawmakers will begin a new year of health care reform discussions with a massive public hearing at the Statehouse in early January.

The chairmen of the House and Senate health care committees will convene a public hearing on the evening of Jan. 12, in the chambers of the Vermont House as they begin new deliberations on changes to the state's health care system, including considering a single-payer option.

January's public forum is to collect input on two single-payer bills – H.100 and S.88 – each creating a state-run health care system. Sen. Doug Racine, the Chittenden County Democrat who chairs the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, said he plans to spend the session studying exactly how a single-payer health care system would work in Vermont.

"We've been having the debate over whether it's a good idea or a bad idea for a very long time," said Racine, a 2010 gubernatorial candidate. "What I'm interested in is how it would work. There are a lot of questions. Let's answer those questions."

Co-chairing the public forum in January with Racine will be Rep. Steve Maier, the Middlebury Democratic chairman of the House Health Care Committee. He said the committees will look at the two single-payer bills – but that they are putting everything else on the table too.

"Both Doug and I will spend the first two to three weeks trying to wade through all the good ideas that are out there," Maier said.

Much of what lawmakers plan in Vermont will depend greatly on what happens in Washington, D.C., Racine said he is disappointed in the direction of negotiations in the Senate, which he says have made the public investment in expanding health care weaker.

"There will be some great things in the final bill," Racine said. "But at best it will just catch the rest of the country up with Vermont. We need to go further than that."

Maier said he is optimistic Congress will pass a federal health care bill before Vermont lawmakers return to Montpelier in early January. But if that doesn't happen – if the final bill is still in the works – Maier said there are a number of programs and initiatives that have appeared so far in all the versions of the bill.

"There's been a lot of discussion in the media about a few parts of this bill," he said. "But there are whole parts of this proposal that is not changing."

"The sooner they get it done the better."

Health care reform is a perennial issue for Vermont lawmakers, but there is evidence that this year could result in a groundswell of support for action. Throughout the summer and fall an organization called Health Care is a Human Right Campaign, a project of the Vermont Worker's Center, has held community meetings with regular citizens and lawmakers.

Organized nearly two years ago, the campaign has slowly been building a network of single-payer health care supporters throughout Vermont. More than 1,000 people attended a Statehouse rally it organized back in May and when lawmakers return to Montpelier in January, the campaign will deliver another message to them.

James Haslam, the director of the Worker's Center, said his group will deliver 3,000 postcards from Vermonters supporting health care reform to members of the Legislature. He said the rising costs of health insurance – and the continued gap in coverage for many — "cannot be tolerated any longer."

"For once I really think we have the political will to get this done," Haslam said. "If we keep on pushing, that will will be there."

Maier is fond of explaining the difficulty in passing major health care reform initiatives with an analogy of the system being an airplane in flight that needs repairs.

"We trying to remodel that plane while it's still in the air," he said. "We can't land it, because people are still using it. But we need to change it."

The public forum is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Statehouse on Tuesday, Jan. 12.